ESSAY- Playing God: Why it's still a fools' game
In his June 24 Hook essay "Playing God? Synthetic biology offers promise, not peril," Ronald Bailey wonders how anyone could be against biological tinkering. But as it turns out, quite a few people should be against particular kinds of biological tinkering, especially those that attempt to create new life forms, change the basic requirements of life, or try to get around biological truth. Man simply does not possess enough knowledge to foretell what the final consequences of his dabbling will be.
Worse yet, man is often so swayed by his desire for economic gain that his reasoning becomes impaired, as illustrated by Mr. Bailey, the top science writer for Reason magazine. To make a case for the supposed innocuousness of engineered micro-organisms, he writes, "[M]any lab-crafted creatures would likely be obliterated by competing organisms honed by billions of years of evolution in the wild."
In reality, organisms honed by billions of years of evolution are much more likely to be obliterated by the unfamiliar organisms suddenly introduced into their environment. Dodos, the flightless birds on the island of Mauritius, were unable to compete with the monkeys, cats, and pigs people brought to the island. The introduction of Nile perch into Lake Victoria in Africa resulted in the extinction of about one-half of the Earth's species of fish called cichlids. And let's not forget the extinctions of American Indian tribes due to exposure to European diseases such as smallpox.
How can we not worry about unintended consequences, especially if we're unleashing novel forms of organisms (viruses and bacteria) that— precisely because they have not evolved on this planet— do not have natural, or even manmade, controls out there?
We have many examples of how man's hubris (arrogance towards nature) and emotions (an intense desire to overcome limitations imposed by nature) have resulted in disastrous consequences that are not often discussed publicly. Consider the trend of assisted human reproduction. Common sense should tell us that anyone having reproductive problems likely has a biological deficiency that prevents that person from conceiving naturally. Simply placing a baby inside such a woman ignores the message that nature was trying to send. Indeed, thirty years after the birth of the first test tube baby, health risks for children born as a result of in vitro fertilization (IVF) are now being recognized.
According to a 2005 report in the journal Human Reproduction, artificially conceived children are 30-40% more likely than naturally conceived fetuses to be born with birth defects. An Australian study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that babies conceived through assisted conception were more than twice as likely as naturally conceived infants to be diagnosed with multiple birth defects in their cardiovascular, genitourinary, chromosomal, and musculoskeletal systems. According to an article published by Associated Newspapers Ltd. of the United Kingdom, researchers estimate that IVF babies are between five and seven times more likely than non-IVF babies to develop retinoblastoma, an eye cancer. The same article asserts that children with Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome, which results in overgrowth and an increased risk of kidney cancer, were four times more likely to have been born following assisted fertilization. And it was reported in 2006 that a review at the University of California of 19,000 medical records appeared to show that children born by IVF are more likely to be diagnosed with autism, childhood cancers, and cerebral palsy.
Playing God doesn't just bring risk to babies; it also brings increased risks and pains to their mothers. To produce an abundance of eggs for the IVF procedure, a woman's ovaries are overstimulated by drugs which have been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, such as breast, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and malignant melanoma. The drugs may also lead to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, the effects of which can be kidney failure and death.
Now that we can see the results of man's tinkering, one could reasonably conclude that IVF is not the miracle that puts man on a par with God. But let's also consider the consequences of trying to thwart the natural world by cramming cows, chickens, turkeys, pigs, shrimp, fish, and other creatures into holding areas to provide— as Mr. Bailey proclaims proudly— cheaper food. Organisms need space to live; it's a requirement of life. When they become overcrowded and their numbers environmentally unsustainable, Mother Nature sends in disease to moderate the population.
As an old margarine commercial once stated, it's not nice to fool Mother Nature. Factory farmers should know this, but to deal with the inevitable disease outbreaks resulting from overcrowding, they continuously employ antibiotics that are not good in the long run for either beast or humankind. Micro-organisms are so numerous that, invariably, some of them are genetically capable of resisting the antibiotics. As the vulnerable bacteria succumb, the more virulent ones remain to multiply. Consequently, ever more powerful antibiotics need to be discovered.
"This development of drug resistance scares the hell out of me," says Kellogg Schwab, director of the university's Center for Water and Health, in a 2009 issue of Johns Hopkins magazine. Schwab asserts what many are beginning to understand, that the war on nature cannot be won because man is not, despite his illusions, God.
"If we continue on and we lose the ability to fight these microorganisms, a robust, healthy individual has a chance of dying, where before we would be able to prevent that death," says Schwab. "It's not appreciated until it's your mother, or your son, or you trying to fight off an infection that will not go away because the last mechanism to fight it has been usurped by someone putting it into a pig or a chicken."
Man may play God, but he's playing a fool's game.
The writer, the author of The Nature-Friendly Garden from Stackpole Books, lives in Crozet.